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Essay: Themes, influences and wider context of William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time

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  • Themes, influences and wider context of William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time
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This essay will analyse the themes, influences and wider context of William Kentridge’s ‘The Refusal of Time’, first created in 2012 and exhibited at dOCUMENT (13), Kassel, Germany. The Refusal of Time projects a barrage of Kentridge’s personal interests and themes amongst these are theatre, the origin of time zones, perception of time, Einsteins theory of relativity, the futility of certainty and Platos allegory of the Cave. His experiences in politics and South Africa are also present. In part I will be dissecting these themes in relation to texts found in Art in Theory 1900-2000 An Anthology of Changing Ideas amongst other sources, as well as considering the effectiveness of the piece as an artwork.

‘The Refusal of Time’ is a multimedia film installation featuring five screens showing film, animation and drawings surrounding a breathing wooden mechanical structure. It was created by William Kentridge in close collaboration with Peter Galison, Philip Miller, Catherine Meyburgh, and Dada Masilo. With such a large cast of contributors it’s no surprise it has such a plethora of themes and influences. A cocktail of components both in medium and subject matter, the piece is an immersive sensory explosion that leaves the viewer grasping for a foothold.The theme of time is that foothold, reoccurring throughout the ever-changing narrative. The artist plays with it in both the animations by reversing or syncing image, and the film, in which the characters theatrically make a time bomb. The film, animation, and 3D elements are bound together with a tremendous symposium of sound, highlighting the prominent use of rhythmic timing and synchronisation. Even the characters march in time with the breathing mechanism set in the middle of the room. The result is an abstract theatrical mediation on time and humanity.

‘The Refusal of Time’ was born from a conversation with historian of science Peter Galison. The discussion explored Kentridge’s interest in time and science. Kentridge and Galison found that theories such as Einsteins theory of relativity, sparked ideas and imagery that could be solidified into drawings and physical mark-making, thus instigating the animated drawings. The industrial revolution and the origin of time zones were also interests for both Kentridge and Galison. In the book Thick Time, Kentridge is introduced as a man “roaming through history drawn by the great ideological and aesthetic experiments of the 20th century” (Blazwick & Breitwieser & Tøjner & Balshaw, 2016). The aesthetics of early industry and science feature continuously in Kentridge’s work. Machinery, metronomes, clocks, typewriters, megaphones all appear in the piece either physically or on film.

William Kentridge lives and works in Johannesburg South Africa. His work draws direct inspiration from the city, “it is the muse” (Kentridge, 2016). Moreover, having grown up in a politically active family, his father worked as a prominent lawyer on Nelson Mandelas trial, Steve Bikos death case and the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960; it’s impossible to separate his work from South Africa’s turbulent political history with Apartheid. On first impression, I experienced the piece as if it were a clock, a giant mechanical set of wooden lungs breathing life onto the screen, churning out scenes of scientific experiments, drawings and presenting a semi-abstract narrative that progresses rhythmically forward. This wooden machine was named the elephant after a machine from the Charles Dickens Novel: Hard Times in which it is described as moving “monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness,” (Dickens, 1854). Initially, the film was full of energy, the ending however steered my focus towards a story of oppression and hardship. The mood changes from spirited celebration to a more somber atmosphere. Suddenly new characters are introduced, they bring with them objects symbolic of wealth, time and industry and the line of silhouettes is shown trudging across the landscape. These new characters, along with their commodities climb on the backs of others and the procession slows to a sluggish march. This transition seems to parallel the history of apartheid in the colonialism of South Africa.

During this segment, Kentridge reduces characters to silhouettes, the figures resemble his expressive charcoal drawings. The choice to use a monochrome colour scheme connects the aesthetics of the film to Kentridge’s interest in the 1940s and the industrial revolution. In this scene it is particularly distinct and instills a powerful reaction. At times, the many components of the piece can threaten the deliverance, but the decision to use limited colour and maintain stark lines in the video, balances and bolsters the visual communication. The silhouette scene appears reminiscent of Plato’s allegory of the cave in which three prisoners have just shadows on the cave wall from which to draw conclusions of the world. The parable goes on to tell of one prisoner escaping the cave and upon suddenly realising the existence of the outside world, returns to tell the other prisoners who turn away in disbelief. It’s a story of the limitations of our perception of reality and also about what is required in order to truly gain wisdom together. By simplifying the figures to shadows Kentridge invites the viewer to expand their thinking beyond the visual information available to them, like the prisoner escaping from the cave.

The title, ‘The Refusal of Time’, can also be linked to the industrial revolution and the origin of time zones. Time zones were introduced during the turn of the industrial revolution in order to schedule trains correctly according to different local times, since people had never travelled long distance so quickly. In an interview Kentridge described “a refusal (from non-west countries) of the European sense of order imposed by time zones; not only literally, but a refusal that also referred metaphorically to other forms of control as well.” (Kentridge, 2014). With this he was describing the opposition non-western countries such as South Africa had to being amalgamated into the Western cultural infrastructure using, in part, their system of time zones. In a way, it was a literal refusal of time. During Kentridge’s life-time, due to the differences in regime and political chaos, South Africa’s relationship with the west has been laboured.

Though there are moments of narrative and structure throughout the piece, they are somewhat fragmented. The artist has made an effort to emphasise ambiguity so that the individual viewer may experience the piece differently based on their own personal context. This can be linked back to Kentridge’s Interest in the theory of relativity in which Einstein states “Only experience can decide as to it’s correctness or incorrectness”(Einstein, 1920). William Kentridge has made physical what Einstein theorised, albeit in a somewhat abstract way. Even the chairs, strangely placed around the room, seem randomly positioned, especially considering they are competing for space with a car sized moving wooden sculpture, but upon further inspection are bolted purposefully to the floor. As a result, each viewer inhabits an individual space, an individual line of sight and therefor an individual experience.

This element of abstraction, is in my opinion what makes this piece extremely effective as a piece of art. “To experience a work of art is to re-experience it, to rouse the essential and the living character that rests within its form as ones own personal life. The work of art is born anew in us” (Itten, 1921, p. 304). To expand on this quote, the power of art lies in it’s ability to connect with the viewer. This piece has been orchestrated to spark countless unique connections and experiences. Kentridge provides a huge amount of visual and intellectual stimulation in ‘The Refusal of Time’, but importantly leaves enough ambiguity and breathing space for the viewer to make connections that are individual to their own imagination, and I believe, therein lies the power of his artwork.

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